Aristotle and Moral Education in Art

silhouette of three performers on stage
Photo by Kyle Head on Unsplash

I spent a large chunk of my weekend grading essays from my students. Their task was to watch the movie The Road, adapted from the novel by Cormac McCarthy and write a paper based on themes and ideas presented in the course. Based on the course content presented so far, I encourage students to examine the story’s protagonist and argue whether he is a good candidate to be considered a tragic hero as defined by Aristotle.

While grading papers, I mused about Aristotle’s strict criteria for what makes for a tragic hero. The tragic hero must be noble and good (though not a paragon of virtue), but possesses a minor flaw of character or error in judgment (hamartia), which when applied to circumstances brings about some sort of downfall or negative consequence (an inevitable reversal of circumstances, or peripeteia). It’s not that the character is vicious, but merely that their minor flaw is the cause of the negative outcome. However, the negative outcome must be caused by the character (and not, for instance, by the gods), and the consequences of outcome must be in excess of the original cause. The character must also see that they are the reason for their suffering (anagnorisis – the move from ignorance to knowledge). In the context of a narrative or telling of the story, this would elicit pity and fear, a purification of emotions (catharsis) for the audience.

On the one hand, Aristotle is spelling this all out as a way of formalizing and categorizing types of art (Aristotle was a philosopher and biologist by vocation). He might have even considered writing this down as a way of formalizing a set of guidelines to critique plays, finding a way to point out what makes some plays good and others not.

But I had another thought. Aristotle’s teacher, Plato, took a dim view of the arts. In his Republic, Plato was comfortable with banishing the poets from his ideal city, and only allow art that held up the moral authority. I’m wondering if Aristotle had something like this in mind – that art could be used as a moral education tool.

Maybe, the best examples of art are ones that teach the audience lessons, albeit in a less direct route (than, say, fables). If this were true, then we could interpret Aristotle’s criteria the following way. A piece of art is valuable as a moral training tool when the audience can build an emotional connection with the suffering of others. Rather than it being a spectacle for them to lose themselves in, the art gives the audience a moral framework to judge themselves against. The tragic figure is like them: not a god or immortal, but an example of a good person trying to do good things. The tragic figure might even be a little aspirational, something the audience can work towards. They aren’t depraved in the soul, but they are responsible for their actions, even if those actions have negative consequences.

Instead of blaming their suffering on an external cause, the tragic figure realizes that they are the cause of their own suffering. The audience sees this, sees that they could be this person, and through their emotional connection, learns to empathize with the tragic figure. In a sense, they could be the same person, were the circumstances be different. The audience feels the pain, takes pity upon the otherwise good person, and maybe even fears this happening to them.

Given that Aristotle’s ethics was predicated on relative moral excellence, it’s possible that he intended art to be educative, though I don’t have the scholarship background to confirm whether this is true (or plausible). To be clear, I don’t think art must function in this capacity. I think it’s perfectly reasonable to have art for its own sake, or for the creative expression of what’s inside the artist.

Still, the thought of morally educative art is interesting. I’ve often thought of what kinds of art I’d want to expose my own children to in the development of their moral character. What kinds of lesson would I want them to absorb and learn from as they develop an internal sense of ethics and morality?

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

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